NEW YORK -- For most of the past 12 months, since the tempest of William Shawn's unceremonious removal as editor of The New Yorker after 35 years and his protested succession by Robert Gottlieb, this deeply eccentric publication has been facing a familiar and difficult predicament.
Governments, businesses, religions and families all ask themselves the same questions: Can an institution whose strength seems to flow from the person of its leader survive his inevitable passing? And if so, at what cost?
The New Yorker's welcome of Gottlieb, only its third editor in 62 years, was famously inauspicious. Before his first day on the job, Gottlieb was handed a letter signed by 154 members of the staff, many of them esteemed names in American arts and letters, asking him to stay away. He showed up anyway, as the letter writers no doubt expected.
Since then, The New Yorker's writers and editors and artists -- and, more indirectly and importantly, its nearly 600,000 paying readers -- have been orienting themselves to the new editor's catholic tastes (for ballet, for the arcana of popular commercial culture) and pronounced distastes (for formality, for the received wisdom). Gottlieb, a man of overweening confidence and instinctive command, is at 56 still very much in his prime.
The upheaval of the magazine's editorial transition comes -- not coincidentally -- at an uncertain time in its corporate life. Less than three years ago, The New Yorker, long the private preserve of the Fleischmann family, was acquired by the magazine division of Samuel I. Newhouse's family communications company. Under the roof of this corporate powerhouse are book publishing's redoubtable Random House and its imprint Alfred A. Knopf, which Gottlieb ran for 19 years, and the profitable Conde' Nast magazine group, with its successful revival of another relic, Vanity Fair, by editor Tina Brown. Newhouse is a man with a high tolerance for quality so long as it makes money for his company.
Most who have been at the magazine for a while date the beginning of Shawn's decline to the magazine's sale and the "distractions" that followed the installation of an aggressive new publisher (now chairman) named Steven Florio, 35 years old at the time.
Florio introduced The New Yorker to contemporary marketing practices and circulation targets considered essential to polish the magazine's dowdy image on Madison Avenue. Too many of its readers, by conventional demographic standards, were old and getting older. Old people don't buy what the advertisers sell. Dead people don't read magazines at all.
Such earthly considerations had seldom concerned the 79-year-old editor who circulated a short and emotional "Dear colleagues, dear friends" note of farewell last Feb. 12. Shawn's sorrowful departure was at the still center of a public hurricane, as magazine staff members decried Newhouse's treatment of Shawn and declared Gottlieb's appointment unacceptable.
Today, with calm restored and privacy reclaimed, people at The New Yorker are a tad bashful about their passionate display of loyalty to Mr. Shawn, as he was always known. "We thought it was preposterous to think an outsider could tend the garden in which this delicate flower bloomed," remarks E.J. Kahn, who has written for the magazine for more than 50 years. Mark Singer, a staff writer since 1974, says it more plainly: "We looked like spoiled children. We were sort of temporarily dislocated and didn't quite grasp what we were doing. It was a family tragedy."
The new chairman, for his part, talks like a man with the worst behind him: "Now they know that Florio and Gottlieb are not going to destroy the place." But it may be even more true that the place was more resilient than anyone imagined. The magazine keeps coming out, and it probably looks to most readers and to the naked eye little different from The New Yorker Shawn was publishing in his last years there.
After the unpleasantness of the transition, when the ugly family feud became for a time the talk of the town, many at The New Yorker are wary of the press. In the magazine's utilitarian offices, most conversations slalom on and off the record. Gottlieb himself favors the editor's chestnut that the magazine he puts out every week is more articulate than he could ever be: He talked to a reporter -- for 90 minutes -- on the condition that nothing he said be used in the article. Pen and notebook, he insisted, must remain untouched throughout.
The First 52 Issues When Robert Gottlieb was preparing to move the 10 blocks from the Knopf editorial rooms on East 50th Street to The New Yorker's on West 43rd, he was reported to have read a year's worth of the magazine to familiarize himself with his new charge. Gottlieb had never worked at a magazine before.
Next month, when the magazine's top-hatted mascot, Eustace Tilley, appears for the 64th time on the cover of The New Yorker, Gottlieb will have overseen a full year of issues. What's different about them? Where is his imprint?
Kremlinologists would be impressed by the enthusiasm of The New Yorker's numerous armchair analysts, but not always by their memories. Contrary to much instant analysis, for example, both photographs and four-letter words did appear -- several times -- in William Shawn's New Yorker.
A former editor at the magazine comments wryly on the number of times he has been approached by one of its devotees in a sputter that "The New Yorker would never have done something like that under Shawn!" -- usually, this alumnus goes on, "about exactly the kind of piece that Shawn would have said 'yes' to without a moment's hesitation."
But facts are facts. Gottlieb, to begin with, published a dispatch from Afghanistan by one of his Knopf authors, novelist Doris Lessing -- a piece that Shawn, not two months before, had turned down. It was only the first of a series of editorial decisions that seemed designed to be provocative, and that served as declarations of the new order and interments of the old.
In late spring, Gottlieb began publishing the work of some new "Talk of the Town" writers, the core of the anonymous "we" who generate the editorial posture and cultural attitude of the magazine. The newcomers shared these unsigned columns with such formidable returning alumni as John McPhee and John Updike.
The names of new, younger critics -- Mimi Kramer on theater, Terrence Rafferty on fiction -- began last spring to mingle with the august bylines in the back pages of the magazine -- among them Arlene Croce (dance), Whitney Balliett (jazz), Andrew Porter (music), Pauline Kael (film). Since the first of the year, The Atlantic's Holly Brubach has begun to write about fashion and free-lancer Mark Moses about popular music.
In August, eyebrows were detonated by an unsigned and exceptionally long "Notes and Comment" denunciation of Judge Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court, staking out the magazine's position weeks and months ahead of the journalistic pack on that issue.
The piece was written by Renata Adler, known for her controversial pieces in The New Yorker on the Westmoreland and Sharon libel trials, and among the journalists most likely to excite passionate reactions these days. Excite them it did, especially as Gottlieb followed up with Washington writer Lincoln Caplan's unsparing critique of the U.S. solicitor general's office under the Reagan administration.
Even as the new editor was delivering this serious judicial one-two, he was acting out his wackiest inclinations. In one of his first moves as editor, he had assigned a story to Jane and Michael Stern, popular culture mavens and former Gottlieb authors ("Elvisworld"). As "Our Far-Flung Correspondents," in September the Sterns reported from Indiana on a convention of "Wee Scots," as collectors of Scottish terrier memorabilia call themselves. When you ask New Yorker people to describe a classic Gottlieb piece, they say, with a roll of the eyes, "Wee Scots."
More startling -- though still, by the standards of any other magazine, piddling -- have been the visual changes. Covers are no longer, in the words of the alumnus, "the basket of flowers on your front porch." They have become, like your laundry, bolder, brighter and cleaner. Often a joke or a plot or some action is implied. Recognizable words appear. Lee Lorenz, the magazine's art director for 15 years, says Gottlieb wants "idea covers" and "visual excitement."
Cartoons, a signature of the magazine, are more numerous under Gottlieb, and Lorenz says he is being urged to go out and find new artists. "The field doesn't offer enough," he says, with a worried shake of the head. One of his editors says the Gottlieb trademark is more "pure silliness" and fewer "jokes with guys in suits."
What generated the greatest internal -- and external -- shock and indignation was Gottlieb's surprise publication of three black-and-white photographs in the last issue of 1987. The objections to these photos, accompanying a piece about "Bug Art" by Sue Hubbell, had less to do with broken precedents than with bad execution -- the pictures were badly sized, poorly reproduced, captionless and unedifying.
Photographs have been rare because at The New Yorker, the writing was supposed to be "so clear that it made people see things," in the words of Deputy Editor Charles McGrath. "If you needed a photographer the writer had failed." All hands now agree that photography, in limited and constructive doses, may be an appropriate innovation in the magazine's pages.
But the bug incident makes people worry. Gottlieb kept his plans a secret until the last minute, seeking no one's advice or approval. A staff writer of some duration says, "I think he's tweaking somebody, but I don't know who he's tweaking and to what effect." Lorenz says he wasn't consulted, and that Gottlieb's decision was a "mistake." One of his colleagues tactfully calls the editor "a man who doesn't want to have taboos."
Upstairs, Downstairs The three editorial floors of The New Yorker at 25 W. 43rd St. are connected vertically by haphazard stairwells, but descending to the floors below, where the magazine's salaries and bills are paid, is a more complicated matter. The visitor must leave one secure zone, travel one floor in the building's public elevator, and be buzzed into another -- far plusher -- zone.
The wall between church and state, as the editorial and business sides are sometimes known in journalism, is an old custom at The New Yorker. Thanks to the wall, Shawn was able to insulate his writers and editors from the fortunes of the magazine in its marketplace. (It didn't hurt, of course, that for a long time those fortunes were excellent.)
Michael Arlen, a staff writer for 30 years, thinks Shawn privately regarded The New Yorker as "a secret book club, a place to write books, that seemed to all intents and purposes like a magazine ... You could always get more space, more time. The apparatus of the magazine would take a back seat to what you were trying to do."
If any apprehension preoccupies the members of the upstairs club, it is fear that the apparatus will end up in the front seat -- that the new owner's bean counters will begin to encroach on their way of life. Already in The New Yorker's pages, charges one young old-timer, can be seen "a far more serious invasion of the style of the magazine than any of the changes the art department has made."
He means the palpable evidence of Florio's handiwork: Bound-in subscription and customer-service cards. Horizontal display of ads. Irregular paper stock. The musical computer chip in the Christmas vodka centerfold. And most notorious, the so-called "advertorial" sections -- in effect, advertising meant to look like editorial matter.
These sections, set off from the regular pages of the magazine but bearing its imprimatur, are a necessary evil in the eyes of most editors now. But, perhaps needless to say, they had never appeared in The New Yorker until Florio decided he needed them to "jump-start the magazine."
The advertorials outraged many inside and out who found especially offensive the pseudo-New Yorker style of the "text" describing the wonders of, say, European travel or formal wear. Florio today says they have served their purpose and will cease by year's end.
Florio's efforts have also begun to yield financial results. The industry's favored measure of success -- number of advertising pages -- had shown the magazine in a slow decline for five years; for 1987, Florio says, it will show a slight increase (less than 1 percent) to 2,704 pages. "It's attention-getting and a morale booster," says Randall Warner, vice president of Harper's, a smaller magazine in the same market niche. But Warner points out that The New Yorker is still more than 900 pages under its 1983 level.
With some bargain offers and direct-mail solicitations -- a "minimum effort," Florio says -- circulation was driven up by nearly 100,000. The magazine hadn't had a major direct mail campaign since 1971, he remarks. "People saw it in dentists' offices or on an airplane, but no one ever asked them to subscribe." Just as important -- to Florio, to advertisers -- the median age of New Yorker readers is drifting down toward that of young families and conspicuous consumers.
The test of these numbers will come later, when subscribers are asked to renew their subscriptions. The New Yorker's renewal rate is exceptionally high among the competition -- 70 percent or better. But one magazine publishing veteran thinks Florio may be diluting the quality of his audience to produce short-term, and evanescent, results.
No one would call Florio's methods or his manner low-key, which may contribute to the deep suspicions he and his masters breed on the upper floors. If a story needs to be trimmed, for instance, it is hypothesized that Florio wants to squeeze in an ad for another Conde' Nast magazine.
Florio is evidently so sensitized to editorial opinion that when he called the new fashion critic, Brubach, to check her traveling schedule to the European fashion shows against his own, he blurted a promise before she could even say hello: "I will never compromise you."
One New Yorker editor takes a more conciliatory line on the church/state split. "We overdid the separation," he says. "You can have a wall but you don't need barbed wire and gun emplacements. You preserve it by getting along."
Here and Now At The New Yorker Gottlieb arrived famous. He is the man who discovered Joseph Heller and forever changed the English language when he changed the name of Heller's "Catch-18" to "Catch-22" to avoid clashing with a then-new Leon Uris novel, "Mila Eighteen." He went on to edit prodigious numbers of books, working with Naipaul, Cheever, Updike, Tuchman, Drabble, Kazin, le Carre' and so on.
A man known for his discriminating tastes and his profitable publishing, Gottlieb was also thought to have unusual personal magnetism. He would cast his wise and baleful eyes upon you and speak humbly words intended to make you believe in him, confiding or seeming to confide, making a gift of his insight. A former acolyte of Gottlieb, long since estranged, says, "I feel like I've been deprogrammed from a cult."
If such charisma is analogous to the very different hold that William Shawn exerted on his writers and editors -- and it is -- it manifests itself differently. As has been widely noted, Gottlieb wears sport shirts open at the neck, khakis and athletic shoes to the office. In contrast to his wan and reclusive predecessor, Gottlieb is ubiquitous, bustling about the corridors, popping a question, cracking a joke.
An editor says that he's heard complaints from staffers that "Gottlieb is always in my face," but his accessibility is noted by almost everyone who remembers making an appointment days ahead of time to consult Mr. Shawn. Early on, Gottlieb took down the maze of partitions that separated Shawn's corner sanctum from the rest of the magazine, and no secretary bars his open door.
Many at The New Yorker were surprised -- and some, dismayed -- that Gottlieb didn't clean the house of its dead weight. His best calculation, by most accounts, was to put significant confidence and responsibility in Deputy Editor McGrath, who had been pointed toward the editor's chair when Gottlieb skated in. The transition was "happier than I could have imagined," says McGrath, who has become a kind of internal ombudsman in the new regime. "It turns out he was telling the truth when he said he had no agenda."
Together, Gottlieb and McGrath have been recruiting new talent. "Shawn made it hard to penetrate this place," says Singer. But free-lancer Susan Orlean, 32, says she wrote McGrath on the strength of a rumor last spring and now, to her persistent amazement, is a Talk of the Town regular. "In the past I was afraid even to knock, and then I knocked once and the door flew open," Orlean says.
Up on the 20th floor, in what were accounting department offices a few months ago, is a nest of mostly newcomers called (ironically, of course) "Critic's Corner." Rafferty, 36, sits in his newly painted and totally bare office, worrying over his next book review. He is, he says, "awed."
For Gottlieb's new wave of young writers, presumably the future mainstays of the magazine, Shawn is a historical figure no more palpable than the Bachrach portrait of founding editor Harold Ross that hangs at the head of a staircase. They are discovering the place and its customs for themselves.
"They don't eat lunch! They don't eat lunch!" exclaims Orlean disbelievingly. "There isn't even a candy machine." There is, however, a station for coffee and distilled water on every floor, one of the glasnost-like innovations of the Gottlieb era. Journalism with a human face.
With all these newcomers around, E.J. Kahn complains, he doesn't recognize half the people whose names are scribbled next to their unsigned Talk pieces on the hallway bulletin board. (It was ever thus. Kahn also recalls that he first met his 18th-floor next-door neighbor, George W.S. Trow, at a party. "It's high time we met each other after five years," Kahn recalls saying, to which Trow crisply replied, "Twenty.")
Gottlieb has purged from the magazine's bank of articles as many as three dozen articles completed and paid for long ago. Kahn says that for the first time in decades he and some of his contemporaries are finding their pieces returned for tightening and rewriting, and professes an unexpected satisfaction about it. "Maybe we got lazy under Shawn, I don't know," he says.
However that may be, Gottlieb is still regarded warily. His directness with writers, a refreshing change from Shawn's painful indirection, has left some with bruised feelings. One writer found Gottlieb's glib reaction to a piece "humiliating." Gottlieb, observes Singer, "takes the view that writers are children who are not be indulged; Shawn thought they were children who ought to be indulged."
Another staffer notes this distinction between editors: Shawn "had a stable of staff writers he stuck with through thick and thin," while Gottlieb is "going after pieces rather than going after writers. He picks up the brightest object he can find."
As for Gottlieb's magazine, there are persistent questions about his editorial intentions. Two key writers of "Notes and Comment" under Shawn -- Jonathan Schell and Bill McKibben -- have left the magazine (there were few other defections), and their absence is noted in the uneven tone and gravity of those columns.
Schell was the magazine's principal voice against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war and author of the nuclear-age lament "The Fate of the Earth." He was, in Singer's view, "the conscience of the magazine," whereas today, "I don't see much evidence of its conscience in its pages." A senior editor, conceding as much, notes that it has been "a constant struggle" to find "Comment" writers.
More broadly, New Yorker fact writers (as the reporters are sometimes called) worry about Gottlieb's attitude toward their craft. "Here is a magazine whose central strength since World War II has been journalism," says one vet of fact, "being edited by a man who doesn't care about journalism."
This sounds overly harsh. Though Gottlieb himself often speaks disparagingly of journalists as a species, he has published some exceptional reporters in The New Yorker for the first time -- David Rieff on Miami, Jonathan Kozol on the homeless, William Finnegan on South Africa, William Greider on the Federal Reserve, Raymond Bonner on Peru. And the reporters he inherited hardly have been shut out: Caplan on the solicitor general; James Lardner on the Betamax case; Robert Shaplen on the Philippines; Susan Sheehan on New Guinea; and Elizabeth Drew, several times, on politics and government.
(Gottlieb has confounded the expectations of many that he would quickly replace Drew, whose deadpan chronicles inspire fierce allegiance and deep loathing and little in between. It seems unlikely he will make a change in the near future.)
Still, now that the Gottlieb shtick has become more familiar to those around the office, even the things that once were welcomed -- his directness, his informality -- are analyzed and not fully trusted.
In the bare offices along the yellow corridors of The New Yorker, he is compared to Pinocchio and Svengali and called a "narcissist," a "megalomaniac" and "the guy who can't not talk in the elevator." One writer finds listening to Gottlieb's monologues "like swimming in chocolate pudding."
Some at The New Yorker were startled to find Gottlieb sharing with them his unvarnished views of their colleagues, and of Shawn, suggesting to them at worst a habit of indiscretion and at best an undeserved level of intimacy. But as one who has done business with him remarks, "For Gottlieb, taking you into his confidence is like saying 'How are you?' "
Such talk, as Gottlieb must understand, comes with the territory he inherited. To pass the time, they used to put Shawn on the couch, too. The old man's eccentricities were at least as pronounced. They were just very different ones, symbolic of an age and sensibility no less than Gottlieb's are today.
"Rather than God being traded for the Devil," goes one knowing line about the transition, "they've traded one set of psychoses for another."
The Years With Gottlieb But really now. Does any magazine warrant such reverent scrutiny, such fussy devotion, such gnashing of teeth?
After all, magazines come and go. "I remember the old Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Look, the old Life," says Kahn, nursing a vodka martini across the street at the Harvard Club after work. "I don't know that we're imperishable."
Yet for reasons not quite knowable, The New Yorker's readers feel a special relationship to the magazine, a mixture of habit, of membership, of kinship, even of personal obligation. And what they say is telling.
Upstairs in her cubicle at The New Yorker, Mimi Kramer fishes a letter from a filing cabinet. In it, after attacking her review of Joseph Papp's production of "Henry IV, Part 1" for its "rudeness" and "mean-spirited trashing of the production," a reader urges The New Yorker to treat the "fragile institution" of the city's theater "with solicitude and respect, especially when it errs."
Stapled to the letter is Gottlieb's reply. It defends the review on its merits, and then takes the offense: "Do you really believe that the role of the critic is to be polite? ... What's inexcusable isn't rudeness but lack of caring, blandness and empty urbanity. ... The theater is fragile; what's going to help it is the truth, not respectful solicitude."
Downstairs, Gottlieb himself strides into the hall with something to show off, the poignant burden of his office. It's a short note from a subscriber, written in a shaky hand: a halting note of regret.
She has taken The New Yorker for 56 years. It was "the first Valentine my husband gave me," she writes. "I'm 85 and blind. It grieves me to give it up. I had my nurse read it. I'm so sorry. I'll miss it so."
To keep such readers and such standards in a world that beckons compromise, and to celebrate its 75th anniversary at the turn of the century, who knows what Faustian bargains The New Yorker may have to strike?